Setback for Alps as Swiss tunnel referendum passed

March 29, 2016

Switzerland has voted in favour of building a second road tunnel through the Gotthard alpine mountain. In a referendum in late February, the Swiss electorate voted by 57% to 43% to approve a second road tunnel, despite it appearing to contradict the Swiss constitution that commits the country to shifting goods transport from road to rail. The vote has been widely seen as part of a political swing to the right, which has been accompanied by a weakening of public willingness to support environmental measures.

Matthias Müller, of T&E’s Swiss member VCS/ATE, said: ‘This vote came far too early. This summer, the new transalpine rail axis will come into operation, at 57km the longest railway tunnel on the planet. This brings a huge potential for transportation of goods by rail. We should have waited to see how this tunnel will influence traffic levels before voting on the Gotthard, but the road tunnel is the prestige project of the Swiss transport minister Doris Leuthard, and she is pressing very hard for it.

‘The problem is that, while the new rail tunnel could bring down the number of road movements, these could go up again when the road tunnel opens, which will cause severe traffic problems between Basel and Chiasso, especially in the Alps.’

One factor in the NGOs’ favour is that it will take 15-20 years before the new road tunnel is ready for use, whereas the new rail tunnel agreed in the 1990s will come into operation on 1 July.

Jon Pult, president of T&E’s other Swiss member, the Alpine Initiative, said: ‘We have spent two years on the referendum campaign. Now we need to focus our attention on the constitutional requirement for a modal shift from road to rail. Opinion polls show the Swiss strongly in favour of this modal shift, and the opportunity to achieve it has never been greater than it is today, so we are determined to see the goal reached of no more than 650,000 lorry movements across the Alps each year.’

A much bigger test of Switzerland’s environmental resolve will come later this year when a proposal known as the ‘Milk Cow Initiative’ is put to the vote. Sponsored by the Swiss automotive and oil industries, it seeks to require all revenue from fuel taxes to be spent on roads. ‘If approved, this would be 10 times worse than the Gotthard vote,’ Müller said.

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